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Esther, the overturning of misfortune

Like many important figures in history, especially in the Bible, Esther was of humble origins. She was a Jewish orphan, deported to a foreign land, whose situation at a certain point changed in a surprising and radical way: through a mysterious disposition of God she became the queen of a great world power and in this influential role succeeded in saving her people from the peril of destruction.

Andrea del Castagno “Esther” (c. 1421 - 1457)

Esther reminds us of the popular fairy tale of Cinderella, which developed a subject very well known to universal folklore, variously modulated in the different cultures: that of an orphan girl unexpectedly saved from wretchedness and concealment.

Furthermore, the story of Esther at the Persian court may be compared to that of Joseph in Egypt or of Daniel in Babylon; the plot in itself is not unheard of in the Bible; the novelty lies in the fact that here we have a woman protagonist, namely the Lord’s marvels are manifested here in feminine style.

“The tiny spring which became a river” (Esther 10:3c), is how Mordecai, her guardian describes her: a metaphor suggestive of great things achieved in silence, with tenacious gentleness. The image of water and of the river calls to my mind, as a Chinese woman, a saying of Lao Tzu, a sage who lived in the fifth century B.C.: “Water does not fight for its permanent form but spreads serenely in the arms of every recipient. River water does not demolish obstacles, but follows the course of least resistance to reach the sea. Water seeks joyously to give itself and always seeks the lowest place to make the field above it and around it fertile. Water is humble and rises on high only when it evaporates to be lifted up as a daughter of the heavens”. Simple and clear, upright and courageous, Esther is the transparency of goodness in a tangle of intrigues, jealousies, hatred, struggles for power and betrayals. At first she flows humble and hidden, then surprisingly emerges and grows confident until she overturns and overpowers evil.

Esther’s story is recorded in the biblical book of the same name which, together with the Book of Ruth and the Book of Judith, forms a trilogy of sapiential accounts or edifying stories that bear the name of a woman. The somewhat complex redactional aspect of this Book of Esther resulted in it being passed down in two different forms: a more concise form in Hebrew and another longer form in the Greek version.

The plot is easily summed up. Esther lives in Susa, a Babylonian city where the King of Persia was in the habit of passing the winter. She was under the protection of Mordecai, a kinsman who “adopted her as his own daughter”. In about the year 480 B.C. during the Exile of the Israelites, Ahasuerus, the powerful Persian king “who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces” (1:1), would give luxurious banquets “for all the people both great and small” (1:5) in order to flaunt his riches. One day, at the end of the celebrations, the king decides to show them the most precious “possession” he owns: his most beautiful queen. But – a dramatic turn of events – Queen Vashti refuses to obey him: she does not let herself be treated as an object, she rebels against the exploitation. Seriously offended, the king is enraged and repudiates her. Vashti makes her exit from the scene in silence but with dignity. Her denial was both a challenge and ironical. The powerful Ahasuerus, despite all his astonishing wealth and his enormous mania for grandeur, was unable to bend his wife’s will.

Vashti’s repudiation marks the rapid ascent of the “Cinderella” who becomes the beloved queen of the great Ahasuerus, and of Mordecai who goes into service in the palace. “Beautiful and lovely” (2:7), Esther enchanted him immediately: “The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found grace in his sight… so that he set the royal crown on her head” (2:17). Esther, in fact, had never craved the glory and riches of a court, as she herself confesses to the Lord “I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on the days when I appear in public” (4:17v). She always kept her heart whole for the Lord: “Your servant has had no joy since the day that I was brought here until now, except in you, O Lord God of Abraham” (4:17y). She now manages her delicate position wisely: she shows a firm, solid personality, capable of dwelling in two so different worlds and remaining herself. The new queen is not only beautiful and good, gentle and docile, but above all is a brave and intelligent instrument of salvation in God’s hands.

In time a harsh disagreement develops between Mordecai and Haman, a perverse functionary. Haman, greedy for power, hatches a criminal plot: he plans to eliminate Mordecai and all the Jews present in the Kingdom of Persia. By drawing lots he fixes the precise date for Mordecai’s extermination. The plot is secret, but Mordecai comes to hear of it. However, he does not succeed in doing anything to oppose an imperial decree that has already been ratified. All that remains for him is to involve the queen, the only person who can still try to do something. He gets in touch with her, explains to her the gravity of the situation and urges her to be involved, to intervene, emphasizing his request with cutting words which are at the same time an incentive to action and a key to the interpretation of the whole affair: “Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews” (4:13). This is a very important theological theme: the relationship between the salvation of the individual and the salvation of the group. No one is an island, not even in the experience of faith and salvation. There is no selfish salvation and there is no journey of faith without love for others. With one question Mordecai thus further provokes Esther, inviting her to interpret in depth her own life and in particular her unexpected ascension to the throne. “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14). In this manner he brings out another theological theme: that of God’s providence which arranges everything in accordance with a mysterious plan, marvellous, unforeseeable and unfathomable.

Esther is faced with an unavoidable choice: to risk her life to save her people or to save her own life at the risk of the destruction of her people. Without hesitating and with determination, she opts for the first solution. She begins a three-day fast, involving the entire people, and then makes the lapidary statement: “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). Then she withdraws and prays: with intense feeling she raises a hymn to the power and to the merciful love of God: “Remember, O Lord; make yourself known in this time of our affliction, and give me courage, O King of the gods and Master of all dominion! Put eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion, and turn his heart to hate the man who is fighting against us, so that there may be an end of him and those who agree with him. But save us by your hand, and help me, who am alone and have no helper but you, O Lord” (4:17r-17t). Strengthened by her prayer she rises and arraying herself in her sumptuous royal robes, goes to face the king. Trusting in the Lord and in solidarity with her fellow-countrymen, Esther is ready to collaborate in the divine project to change her people’s destiny: “She was radiant with perfect beauty”. Over and above such beauty, however, she felt her heart beating within her, the heart of a simple, humble woman, aware of her own weakness and involved in an undertaking greater than her, which is why “Her heart was frozen with fear” (51b). And thus the tiny spring emerges from concealment, flowing with greater strength and determination and becomes a devastating river.

“What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom” (5:3). The king, moved by sincere affection and struck by his Queen’s courageous action, promises to fulfil her every desire. Esther knew how to act in the right way and at the right time so she succeeds in confronting the king’s emotionality wisely. She prepares three banquets to which she also invites Haman, her adversary, who manages to delude himself that he has found favour with the king and queen. At the third banquet, however, when events are to reach the culmination of pathos, Esther strategically reveals to the king Haman’s wicked plot, as well as his villainous plan to exterminate the Jewish people. The story ends with the hanging of the perverse minister on the gallows which he himself had erected for his enemy, Mordecai. Thus good triumphs over evil, the wicked man suffers the atrocity that he himself had prepared for the good man. The day which was to have marked the end of the People of God is thereby transformed into a day when the tables are turned. The evil destiny changes into a good one.

This was such an important event that in order to remember it a feast was introduced, since then celebrated with joy through the course of the centuries to this day. It is the feast of Purim, a celebration of the overturning of destiny, fixed on the 15th day of Adar. Pur means “lot”: it is a term of Persian origin, successively accepted into the Hebrew language and transcribed in the plural form purim. The meaning of the feast is to remember that God saves his people by overturning their destinies. And it was Esther herself who was at the root of this overturning. Esther: a model of faith in God and of love for her people. In a situation of apparently impregnable arrogance, goodness overcomes evil, life is reborn and joy flourishes anew on the face of Israel thanks to this young woman. In the Jewish tradition Esther remains a living sign of joy and hope. It is she who restored the wish to live in the hearts of a devastated and exhausted people, it was she who in the thick darkness was able to intuit the blaze of light. She was the tiny spring which gushed in arid land.

Esther may be considered a paradigm of the female figure in the Bible. In the Old Testament, despite a cultural context that is unfavourable to them, women are not invisible: the mothers of Israel such as Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, the charismatic women such as Miriam and Deborah, the exemplary women such as Ruth, Esther and Judith, together with so many others, less known or anonymous – all these women are presented as conversers with God, revealers of his mystery and collaborators in the realization of his design. Above all, in moments of crisis and uncertainty, in times when the toughest challenges must be faced, in situations that need a greater impetus of hope, a supplement of human authenticity, of radicalism and of heroism, it is here that God acts through women. Women emerge in the Old Testament as the dialectic space between human weakness and divine strength, the genuine proof of what human beings can do with God’s help.

Among the female ranks Mary emerges, “blessed... among women”, the humble woman in whom God works “great things”, the highest manifestation of the very identity of a woman, in order to be the ideal place where God manifests his glory and celebrates his victory of salvation. Like Esther and even more than her, Mary looks with realistic optimism at the scene of the world, she lives with hope the ups and downs of history. She trusts in God, she trusts in the Almighty who did and continues to do “great things”. With her hymn of the Magnificat Mary announces, bears witness to and celebrates God’s victory. The overturning of the distinction between the rich and the poor, between the mighty and those of low estate, between the strong and the weak, is a sign and a manifestation of this eschatological victory, already present with the Son of God becoming a man. Mary’s Magnificat transcends the joy of Purim, anticipates the paschal Exsultet, celebrating a passage, a definitive overturning of humanity’s destiny. Jesus’ reassuring voice emerges in Esther’s story and even more in the canticle of Mary: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

Maria Ko Ha-Fong

The author

Maria Ko Ha-Fong is Chinese. She is a member of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians. She studied the sciences of education in Italy and theology in Germany. She obtained a doctorate in biblical theology at the University of Münster. She teaches New Testament and subjects of biblical and pastoral theology at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences “Auxilium”, Rome, periodically at Holy Spirit Seminary, Hong Kong, and at various seminaries in China. She is consultor to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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